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Garnering big Oscars, Green Book has also drawn sharp criticism for its false portrayal of Don Shirley. Author and radio host Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III explains.
Spoiler Alert! This podcast features a detailed discussion of the story portrayed in the film Green Book. If you haven’t seen it yet, and plan to, please save this podcast for later.
The movie Green Book has earned accolades and attacks since it was released in December. It won Oscars for "best picture", "best screenplay", and awarded Mahershala Ali "best supporting actor". Earlier it garnered three Golden Globe awards, including “best supporting actor” for Ali for his portrayal of acclaimed classical and jazz pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. And as a Hollywood biopic that’s “based on a true story,” it has drawn sharp criticism from Shirley’s family members, who say the film distorts and fabricates key elements of the musician’s “true story,” while ignoring powerful parts of his real story.
Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is an author and national radio host who interviewed Shirley’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece before the film was released. They say they were not contacted or consulted by producer/director Peter Farrelly or his screenplay co-writer, Nick Vallelonga.
The story, fictionalized but inspired by actual characters, is based on the perspective of Vallelonga’s father, also known as “Tony Lip,” portrayed as a racist, Italian-American nightclub bouncer who was Shirley’s driver on a 1962 concert tour that took them deep into the Jim Crow south.
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In this podcast interview, Leon details a long list of what he thinks are inaccuracies in the film, from Shirley’s early life to his family relationships to the film’s insinuations that he was gay, a boozer, and a black man who’d never had fried chicken or listened to the music of Little Richard.
While we don’t expect Hollywood versions of people’s lives to be accurate or literal portrayals, Leon feels that the wholesale changes to Shirley’s story — while purporting to tell his story using his name — are remarkable.
Leon and, he argues, other African American observers see this as part of an all-too-familiar Hollywood pattern: using racial stereotypes to entertain white audiences with feel-good stories at the expense of black narratives. As Leon puts it, “There are all these tropes and stereotypes that they play to in the film, which make their story so much more plausible and acceptable to an audience, but just go against some of the fundamental elements and premises of who the guy really was.”